Justin Rogers | Photo courtesy UTEP Athletics
UTEP senior defensive back Justin Rogers followed in his father Jeff’s footsteps to El Paso.
“He was recruited to play basketball here,” Justin Rogers said. “He actually signed, and he was part of the last recruiting class of coach [Don] Haskins. But he had some issues with his SAT and never made it here.”
Fortunately, there were no such issues for Justin Rogers and he has settled in as a leader in the UTEP secondary. The Los Angeles native has also acclimated nicely to his new home in the Sun City.
“I love El Paso,” he said. “The pace is much slower. And people treat each other well here. I think sometimes in L.A., it’s so fast that people don’t care about doing the little things, like opening the door for somebody.”
Rogers was well-traveled before making El Paso his home for the last four years. He actually attended three different high schools.
He passion for the game of football started in a Pop Warner league at a very young age.
“I think a lot of times parents put kids in a bunch of sports, as many as they can,” he said. “But I only wanted to play football.”
Rogers attended Serra High School in Gardena, Calif. his freshman year.
“I was on the freshman team, but we had an ‘A’ team and a ‘B’ team, so I didn’t play much,” he said. “There are a lot of reputable players that have come out of that school. [Arizona quarterback] Khalil Tate was on our team. One of our coaches said that he thought I’d have the best chance of playing varsity the following year. That was funny to hear, because I didn’t consider myself, nor did anybody else consider me to be a really good player on the team.”
Rogers never got a chance to make an impact on the Serra varsity team, as he ended up transferring to Cabrillo High School in Long Beach for his sophomore campaign.
“I was the second nickel guy, and my friend got hurt in game four and the next thing I knew, I was starting three games when he was down,” Rogers said. “So I got to play early in my career.”
He spent the final two years of his prep career at Los Angeles High School, where he really made a name for himself. Slotted in at both the cornerback and wide receiver positions, Rogers led the team to its first CIF Los Angeles City Section Championship in 49 years in 2014. A year later, he was named All-City on both sides of the ball.
“I remember that the summer going into my senior year was where I gained a lot of confidence with my play,” he said.
However, he attracted only mild recruiting interest. His high school coach, Eric Scott, was a former assistant at UCLA and got him in the mix with the Bruins, Fresno State, San Diego State and UNLV. But Rogers’ only scholarship offer came from a program down in the West Texas town of El Paso.
“UTEP was the only school to offer me, which I think was a blessing because I couldn’t have imagined having 35 offers and trying to decide between Alabama and Clemson,” he said. “The decision was made for me and I accepted. I figured this would be the best place for me.”
Rogers played immediately as a rookie in 2016, and was appointed to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team after ranking second on the team with seven pass breakups. He registered 109 tackles, four interceptions and 15 pass breakups in his first three seasons with UTEP, while earning 14 starting assignments.
The last two years have been tough on the Miners, as they’ve had to deal with coaching changes and a dearth of victories.
It took Rogers a little time to embrace his position coach, Remington Rebstock.
“When I was first around him, I kind of had the mentality that I liked my last coach,” he said. “And then I softened, learned about him and we spent the season together.”
What Rogers learned was that he and Rebstock embraced the same guiding principles.
“He shows the same dedication that I show, and he wants to win as bad as I do,” he said. “I can expect the same thing from [defensive coordinator] Mike Cox. I really respect them as men. They not only show us how to play football, but how to handle a lot of stuff. I really love the coaching staff. They’re all my boys, and I appreciate everything that they’ve done.”
The Miners made progress in 2018, winning a game for the first time in nearly two years and enjoying staunch improvement on defense. Rogers knows that if UTEP is going to continue its upward trajectory and increase its victory tally in 2019, the defense will need to stand tall once again.
“Our defense was pretty good last season, but I think we can take another step just by creating more turnovers,” he said. “To be as good of a defense as we’d like to be, we have to get the ball.”
Rogers finds himself in a different position this year as one of the grizzled veterans on the team, and a co-captain to boot.
“Being an old guy is funny,” he said. “I talk to [former Miners] Nik Needham, Alvin Jones, Kalon Beverly, Kahani Smith and A.J. Hotchkins about how I can affect the team and the program. I think it’s really important that our culture changes, and being in a position of leadership, I can voice that.
“This year coach [Dana] Dimel allowed us to vote for captains earlier, and I think that was important. The previous year, we voted for captains before the season. This year, captains were named at the end of the spring. So being a captain and having the team with me going into the summer was huge.”
Rogers has imparted a lot of knowledge on his fellow Miners over the last few months.
“Early in our careers we struggled, so we know what’s it’s like to lose and we can point out what made us lose,” he said. “We can fix that and try to change the culture. Defensively, I just try to emphasize to the guys what’s important. And base level, what’s important is being respectful to the coaches. Everybody gets here and wants to play immediately, and I just try to tell them that it’s important they learn the defense.
“Knowing what you’re doing is super important. That’s what wins and loses games. On third down, 10 people do their job and one doesn’t, and we lose. I try to emphasize to the newer guys that I know coach Reb and coach Cox. They may be killing you about something that you think is super duper small, but I promise you it’s huge. I think everybody is starting to understand the importance of doing their job.”
The Miners did their jobs in the season opener against Houston Baptist and came away with a 36-34 victory. It may not have been pretty, but it was big for a program thirsty for a win.
“You learn something about yourselves when you play in close games, make plays late and show perseverance and fight,” Rogers said. “You don’t get a lesson in adversity from blowing somebody out. Granted, I hate sloppy play and sloppy play is definitely what we put out there at times. But it’s something that we needed to progress. We showed we have guys that aren’t going to quit, and that’s great.”
Author: Jeff Darby – UTEP